Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sweeter than Honey

A Sermon on Psalm 19

“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul,” sings the psalmist, “the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; they are sweeter than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.” What a beautiful image – imagine how special honey must have been, what a delight in a time before Snickers bars and high fructose corn syrup, a time when it wasn’t possible to go to the Morton Williams and pick up a bear-shaped squeeze bottle to sweeten your cup of tea. As I was reading the Psalm for this week, that image really captured me – I loved honey when I was little, and I still do – there’s something mesmerizing about watching it swirl into your tea, something fascinating about the way it moves in slow motion and sticks to everything. I got so caught up in this wonderful image of honey dripping from a honeycomb that it took me a moment to remember what an odd statement this is. The law of the Lord is sweeter than honey. The law? Really?

The law gets a pretty bad rap in Christianity. Specifically, I mean the idea of “God’s law,” and the parts of the Bible that are sometimes referred to as the law – usually the first five books of the Bible, which are also called the Pentateuch, or in Judaism, the Torah. Those five books contain a lot of things other than what we would think of as law – they contain the creation stories, for instance, the stories of the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, of Joseph and his coat of many colors, and of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery. But they also contain quite a lot of what we think of when we think of law, the bulk of which is Mosaic law, or the laws that are given to Moses: the ten commandments, the purity codes that decree what is acceptable to eat, and what is acceptable to wear, laws about forgiveness of debt, and many, many more. Traditionally, there are said to be six hundred and thirteen laws in the Law of Moses! When we Christians talk about this law at all, we often talk about it as something old and outdated, something burdensome and bothersome, and we talk about it in contrast with love. We talk about love as the counterpart of law, we talk about love setting us free from the law, we talk about the Old Testament talking about a wrathful God of law and the New Testament teaching about a God of love.

A lot of that kind of thinking comes from the epistles of Paul, who often wrote to communities of early Christians about the role of Jewish law in the forming church. Paul writes about being justified through faith, not through the works of the law; in one letter, he describes the law as being a “disciplinarian” until Christ came – a title given in Roman society to a slave assigned to supervise children – the law, he says, was like our babysitter. In our contemporary world, with the boundaries between Christianity and Judaism so clearly defined, it can be easy to read Paul as saying that the law has no value for us as Christians, except perhaps to demonstrate to us why we need the grace of God and the love of Jesus. It sometimes seems that Paul is simply telling us that the commandments are nothing but a set-up, a list of unrealistic expectations designed to lead us to realize why we need salvation – because we aren’t perfect, and can’t follow the commandments perfectly. And it’s true – we aren’t, and we can’t – but the people Paul is writing to are in a very different situation than ours. Paul’s letters that talk about the law come to us from the earliest days of Christianity, and are written to mixed communities of Jews and Gentiles who want to follow Jesus. All of them are trying to make sense of who Jesus is, and what Jewish law means now that he has come. Should the Gentiles start following Jewish purity law and keeping kosher? Do the Jews have some advantage because they’ve been studying and following the law their whole lives? Should the law be forgotten altogether? These are the kinds of questions that are causing tension in the communities Paul is speaking to. So when Paul seems to minimize the role of the law, he is speaking to communities that are divided over the law, urging unity within the body of Christ. It is that context that we need to remember when we’re thinking about the idea of God’s law, and the role of the Old Testament in our faith.

Of course, there are truly dark and problematic things in the Mosaic law – laws that suggest that the slavery is permissible, that women are property, and that gay people should be put to death. And I don’t mean to dismiss the harm that those passages have done over the years. There are different ways of thinking about why those ideas are in the Bible, and how to understand them today. Scholars remind us that slavery and patriarchy were the absolute unquestioned norm in the time and place of the ancient Israelites; they remind us that sexuality was understood completely differently in that culture than it is in ours; they remind us that the Israelites were a small group in desperate circumstances, struggling to survive and to keep their identity as a people, and that many of these laws seem to have that end in mind. Regardless of how we understand these passages, it would be a mistake to let them chase us away from the entire Old Testament, and from the idea of God’s law altogether. This Psalm, I think, calls us to a different understanding of what God’s law can mean in our lives.

There’s a wonderful tradition from medieval Judaism that is still practiced in some contemporary Jewish communities: when a child started to learn the Hebrew alphabet, the letters would be written on a slate, and each letter would be covered with a piece of candy. As the child learned each letter, they would eat the candy, symbolizing the sweetness of studying the Torah. This idea that God’s law is precious as gold and sweet as honey is linked to the idea that studying and living with the law is a lifelong process. God’s law isn’t seen as a set of rules that you memorize and then follow – the law is something to be studied, chewed on, contemplated, lived with. The point of the law isn’t to appease an angry God, but to keep God constantly in mind as you live your life. In Jewish tradition as I understand it, study of the Torah is filled with word play and number play, creative re-imaginings and embellishments of scripture called “midrashim,” and lively debates; studying the Torah isn’t a step on the way to a goal – studying the Torah is the goal. A law which is sweet as honey isn’t a set of cold, hard rules; it’s a way to connect with and enter into God’s vision of justice and mercy, to incorporate your faith into your daily life, and to listen for the voice of God through patient study and constant discernment.

That practice of study and meditation, prayerful attention to God’s will and immersion in scripture, is a practice that is available to Christians as well as Jews, although our relationship to Mosaic law is, and should be, very different from that of observant Jews. The traditional way of understanding Mosaic law in Christianity is that we understand that law to be specifically for the Israelite people – that’s the reason that Christians don’t participate in Jewish practices like keeping kosher. However, we cannot understand Jesus and his teachings without understanding the Jewish tradition of which Jesus and all his disciples were part. Indeed, if we immerse ourselves in the Old Testament and learn its themes, stories, characters, and ideas, we see even more how deeply the New Testament is shaped by the old. We hear Jesus preaching in the temple that “the spirit of the Lord is upon me,” and we remember that Jesus is speaking in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. We listen to the Christmas story and we hear echoes of the stories of other miraculous births, of another Joseph who received dreams from God, of another evil king who ordered the slaughter of innocents. We understand the Old Testament as the story of the relationship between God and the Israelite people, and although we are not called to follow the law given to the Israelites, we are called to seek God and to hear what God has to say to the church in that story. We are not called to keep the purity codes which set Israelites apart from the culture around them, but we are called to recognize that in elements of the law, we see God’s vision of justice for the world – a world where debts are forgiven, where everyone gets a day of rest, where foreigners receive hospitality. These were real practices that really mattered then, and that really matter now. Those things are part of God’s vision of justice, and they are part of our justice movements now – you see them in the movement to forgive third world debt, in the New Sanctuary movement, in movements for worker’s rights. When we remember that law is not just meant to judge and confine us, but to urge us toward living rightly with each other, we start to see why the psalmist might say that the law of the Lord is sweeter than honey. We are invited to be God’s people by meditating on and living into God’s will for a better world. That is the attitude that causes the Psalmist to sing about the law of the Lord reviving his soul, opening his eyes, making his heart rejoice.

However, the discussion of the law is only the second half of the Psalm, and I think the first half gives even more insight into how we should understand this vision of God’s law. The Psalm starts by announcing that all of creation praises God: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork!” The psalmist goes on to say that although God’s creation does not speak with words, its proclamation of God’s glory is heard throughout the world. Surely we can identify with this – when we see photos of the earth as seen from space, our whole world and everything in it appearing as a tiny blue gem glowing in the midst of a field of stars, creation cries out glory to God. When the air starts to warm and trees burst into bloom, creation praises God. Creation praises God without words by simply being what God created it to be.

These two things are coupled in the Psalm: creation praising God through its very existence, and the beauty of God’s law. The two seem unrelated at first, but I think there’s an intricate link here. Nature praises God by following the course that God has set out for it – by the rising and setting of the sun and moon, by the changing of seasons, by the ebb and flow of the ocean – by following the laws of nature. Our role is a little different: it is our faithfulness to God’s will and God’s ways that praises God. Creation praises God through its actions, and so can we. Of course we can praise God with words, but we can also give glory to God through our faithfulness to the will of God – we can praise God by following God’s law, by living and acting in ways that reflect God’s vision for the world. During the Civil Rights Movement, a rabbi named Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose faith led him to work for racial justice, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the civil rights march in Selma. “When I marched,” the Rabbi later recalled, “It was like I was praying with my feet.” What a wonderful way to think of God’s law – praying with our feet, praising and glorifying God through action. When we march in the AIDS walk, we praise God with our feet; when we gather at tables together and take the time to really connect with one another, to hear one another’s joys and concerns, we praise God with our ears; when we distribute sandwiches to hungry people, we praise God with our hands; when we meet to do the business of the church, to make plans and decisions, and bring all our attention to how this community can best do God’s will, we praise God with our minds.

Heaven and earth don’t need words to praise God, this psalm declares, and neither do we. Certainly we can praise God with the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts, but we can also praise God by rejoicing in God’s law – by following a path of love and justice, peace and mercy. Saint Francis is said to have advised his followers to “preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” This is the kind of Christian life that this Psalm calls us to: one where our faith is lived out not just through belief, but through practice; not just through word, but through deed. A life where we respond to the good news of the Gospel by doing justice and loving kindness. A life where we live in and with the scriptures, contemplating them and walking with them and studying them and incorporating them into our lives. A life in which everything we do and everything we say is informed by our relationship with God. A life in which we live out God’s vision for this world, knowing that God’s word is sweeter than honey.

God of all creation, lead us to take delight in your will of righteousness declared through prophets and apostles, so that the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the deeds of our hands may be acceptable in your sight. Amen.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Half Empty, Half Full

A Sermon on Philippians 2:1-13

Have you ever read that book The Giving Tree? It’s a children’s storybook by Shel Silverstein, and when I was a kid, someone would read us The Giving Tree during the weekly “children’s sermon” at church about once a year. In the story, there are two characters: a tree and a little boy. The tree provides the boy with everything he needs: apples to eat, branches to play on, shade to sit in. The boy grows up, and the tree gives more and more, until one day the boy, all grown up, wants to sail away and see the world, but he has no boat. The tree offers itself as wood, allowing the boy to chop it down. Years later, the boy comes back, now an old man. “I’m sorry,” the tree, now a stump, says, “I have nothing left to give you.” But the old man just wants a quiet place to sit and rest, and the tree is delighted to oblige. The end.

I can’t stand that book.

Or more accurately, I can’t stand the idea that that book promotes, at least in the context of those children’s sermons: the idea that the meaning of life is giving of yourself until you run out of self.

The book was inevitably read to us by someone who was giving and giving and giving in their own lives – to their spouse, their children, their parents, their work, their volunteering. And as they read us this story, they would tearfully speak of self-sacrifice and giving everything you have, and we, the Sunday school children, would listen and nod, and bow our heads in prayer that God would help us to have generous hearts so we could give cheerfully of ourselves always, and hold nothing back.

Do you know where that idea comes from? Actually, I’m not quite sure where that idea originates, but I can tell you who is responsible for propagating it across the face of the globe: Paul. Paul did that, and he did it most famously in today’s text from Philippians.

This text comes from the letter to the church in Philippi. Paul is writing to them from prison. The Philippian church loved Paul dearly, and they had sent one of their members, Epaphroditus, to visit him and take care of him while he was imprisoned. Incidentally, as inhumane as the justice and prison systems are in contemporary America – and if you followed the execution of Troy Davis this week, you know it is horrifically broken – we do at least feed prisoners. As far as ancient Rome was concerned, there was no reason to use government resources to keep prisoners alive. If they didn’t have people who wanted to come and bring them food, they could starve to death. So Epaphroditus has come to Paul in prison and tells him how things are going in Philippi, and carries this letter back with him from Paul. In this section of the letter, Paul urges the Philippians to “make his joy complete” by loving one another, caring for one another, and being humble. And then he goes on to this little snippet of poetry, which most scholars think is a quote from a hymn that the Philippians would have known:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
Did not regard equality with God
As something to be exploited,
But emptied himself,
Taking the form of a slave,
Being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
He humbled himself
And became obedient to the point of death –
Even death on a cross.

It is a lovely poem, and it espoused what were, at the time, revolutionary ideas: the idea that lowliness is not shameful. The idea that glory and power and status are not objectively good things that we should pursue at all costs. The idea that God can be found in the most humble of places.

Those ideas are beautiful. Those ideas have inspired Christians to work with people who are despised and rejected by society. Those ideas have empowered Christians to stand up to injustice even when it means risking their lives. Those ideas have encouraged Christians to be suspicious of the pursuit of wealth and power and prestige.

But some of the ideas in that ancient hymn have also been very harmful. That hymn is one of the roots of the idea that the appropriate response to suffering is submission. And that idea, the belief that the good and godly thing to do in the face of suffering is meek acceptance, flows so naturally into passivity in the face of injustice.

There is a bit of suspicion in American culture about people advocating for themselves. Although we are a nation born out of colonists’ demand for justice, I hear a touch of skepticism, a bit of hesitancy, when we talk about movements of people demanding justice, whether they be racial minorities, LGBTQ folks, or labor unions. I wonder whether there’s some connection between that hymn urging people to emulate Jesus by humbling themselves and the idea that oppressed people should stop making trouble and just take what they can get. I believe there’s some connection between Paul encouraging us to be like Christ, who “humbled himself to the point of death – even death on a cross” and those children’s sermons about the tree whose greatest joy was in giving itself away until all that was left was a stump.

I wonder if we can find something life-giving and life-affirming in this text? I wonder if there is a way to read it that condemns selfishness and self-centeredness without condemning self-ness, without condemning the selves which we believe are created in God’s own image? Is there something in this hymn that can teach us how to give without being destroyed in the process like the giving tree?

I think there is. And I think it might be in the word kenosis. Kenosis is a term from Christian theology that means “emptying.” It’s used in that hymn where it says that Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” Kenosis has since become a much-loved Christian theological term. John of the Cross talks about emptying ourselves of our own wills in order to make room for the spirit of God. Early Christian theologians debated to what extent Christ did in fact “empty” himself, since they didn’t believe that he had entirely given up his God-like-ness. Much later, C.S. Lewis compared God’s kenosis to the work of a painter, who pours herself or himself into the act of creation without giving herself or himself up.

I had always envisioned kenosis kind of visually, and I pictured it as something like pouring the liquid out of a bucket, or scooping the goop out of a pumpkin. As I was studying this week, though, I discovered that that doesn’t seem to be what kenosis means at all. While the theologians were arguing about Christ’s kenosis, Greek-speaking folks went right on using that word casually, in everyday life, and this is how they used it: kenosis is the process that happens between meals – you eat something and you’re satisfied, and then you gradually become hungry again, and that is kenosis. Or it could describe the moon: you see the full moon, and then it begins to wane, and that is kenosis.

Kenosis is not something that occurs once and for all; kenosis, normally, is cyclical. Kenosis is not so much a tree being chopped down, but maybe more like a cow being milked. Kenosis is not a final act, but something we do over and over again.

I started lifting weights a couple of weeks ago, and while I was researching weight-lifting programs, I learned something that shocked me: we don’t get stronger by lifting weights. We get stronger by recovering from lifting weights. During that lifting session, you challenge your muscles, and if you’re challenging them the right amount, you damage them just a tiny bit. Between workouts, they heal themselves and that healing makes them stronger. If you don’t take days off, they don’t have time to repair themselves, and they will get weaker and weaker and weaker, and if you don’t rest them, you’ll eventually injure yourself. But if you do it right, if you push yourself and then recover, push yourself and recover, and after each recovery you are a bit stronger and you can do more and more.

So how do we do that cycle? Where can that restoration come from, and how can we make sure that we find the right balance of giving and receiving? I think Paul’s epistle to the Philippians gives us a clue: this epistle is not a letter to one person; it is a letter to a community, and it urges them toward kenosis in the context of that community. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” If we are alone, like the giving tree, giving and giving and giving, we are liable to give until nothing is left of us. But Paul isn’t writing to one person telling him or her to give of herself without self-interest: he is writing to a community, telling each of them to look out for the wellbeing of others – both those outside the community, and one another. In community, we can care for one another, help one another through tough times, see that each of us has time to rest and be renewed.

I learned something this week about how community can help us be whole and well, how we can heal each other even in the process of kenosis, as I followed the campaign to save Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia on Wednesday. Troy was executed despite a worldwide campaign of letters, petitions, phone calls and protests, and shortly before his execution, he penned a letter to his supporters that rings with some of the same hope that I hear in Paul’s letter from jail: “I am humbled by the emotion that fills my heart with overwhelming, overflowing Joy. I can’t even explain the insurgence of emotion I feel when I try to express the strength I draw from you all, it compounds my faith.”

It compounds my faith.

People emptied themselves for Troy Davis. People gave of their time and their energy; they called and tweeted and emailed; they stood vigil and fasted in solidarity; they hoped and prayed and finally wept with the family. But they didn’t do it alone. They – we – maybe some of you – did it together. And when all of that work failed, and Troy Davis was executed on Wednesday night, they – we – maybe some of you – strengthened and energized each other to keep striving for a justice system which is just. In community, we find hope in the midst of despair, light shining in the darkness, fullness even as we empty ourselves. When we work together, we’re not like the giving tree, giving more and more until we run out. The more we give, the more we empty ourselves together, the more we care for one another and the world, the fuller and stronger we become.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Dangerously Close to Preaching": Reflections on Higher Ground

Correct me if I’m wrong, but good films about women’s religious experiences are pretty rare. (No,
Eat Pray Love does not count.) So I was pretty delighted to see the trailer for Higher Ground, a film directed by and starring Vera Farmiga. The film, currently in limited release in New York and Los Angeles, is based on Carolyn S. Brigg’s memoir This Dark World and tells the story of Corinne Walker’s spiritual journey into, and eventually out of, fundamentalist Christianity.

I went with high expectations, and the film did not disappoint.
Higher Ground opens with Corinne Walker’s adult baptism, but immediately plunges into her childhood. We get to know Corinne’s family, her complicated relationship with religion, and we see the averted tragedy which leads her toward a more intensely religious life. By the time we return to Corinne’s baptism, we understand fundamentalism’s appeal for her: we can see the ways it helps her make sense of her life, the ways it meets her spiritual and emotional needs.

Because the truth is, no one wakes up in the morning and thinks to herself, “Today I’d like to join an oppressive, patriarchal religious community.” And the truth is, there is a lot more to the religious lives of fundamentalist women than oppression and patriarchy. One of the lovely things about
Higher Ground is that it shows Corinne receiving strength and comfort and joy from her church as authentically and honestly as it shows her struggle with its flaws.

Corinne’s relationships with three women struck me as particularly telling in her spiritual journey. Corinne’s sister Wendy (Nina Arianda) is a rebel, a counterpoint to Corinne’s life of piety. When Wendy moves in with Corinne and her family in order to “get back on her feet,” the two share a surface-level sisterly camaraderie until their different worldviews lead to a major clash, ultimately revealing their scorn for each other’s choices. Theirs is a relationship marred by mistrust and judgment, scarred from old wounds, and the brokenness around Corinne’s familial relationships pushes her toward the closeness of her fundamentalist church.

What is lacking in Corinne’s relationship with Wendy, she finds instead in her friendship with Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk). Annika approaches life with joy, gratitude, and sensuality, and she is, for Corinne, as much role model as companion. They pray together as freely as they laugh, and the easy spiritual sisterhood between them makes the appeal of Corinne’s fundamentalist community clear. At the same time, there is an element of jealousy in Corinne’s admiration. She longs for the joie-de-vivre and deep sense of God’s presence that seem to come so easily to Annika. When Corinne sees Annika speaking in tongues, she declares, “You get all the good stuff! I want it!” and shortly later she is alone in her bathroom, trying to coax herself toward glossolalia with all the rigor and effort of an algebra lesson.

Most enraging, and unfortunately most true to my own experiences of fundamentalist Christianity, was the pastor’s wife Deborah (Barbara Tuttle), whose de facto role is to enforce the community’s patriarchal standards on the women of the church. In the trailer, we see a glimpse of Corinne standing up to speak in church and finding herself silenced by the pastor and tugged toward her seat by her husband. Later, Deborah admonishes her, “Sister, I know you just want to testify to what God has done for you, but you came dangerously close to preaching.”

Although Corinne’s eventual decision to leave the church comes after many more injuries, large and small, this moment goes to the heart of the matter. There is not room for Corinne’s voice in her community – at least not if she comes dangerously close to preaching. Nor if she comes dangerously close to grieving, or doubting, or questioning. There is room for Corinne’s authentic voice, it seems to her at first, but the boundaries become clear as Corinne is hemmed in, over and over again, until she rebels.

And yet, not all of Corinne’s struggle with her church is unique to fundamentalism. In any Christian community (and probably any faith community), there are unspoken boundaries and norms that become all-too-apparent when we tread on them; there are dearly held orthodoxies; there are people who seek to build themselves up by putting others down. But we do church anyway, because, as
Higher Ground so honestly and tenderly shows, we find God through relationship, in community, despite all its messiness. And although (spoiler?) Corinne is unchurched and lonely as the credits roll, we sense that her search for higher ground is not over, and will lead her, once again, into messy, grace-filled community.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Praying With Joseph

I grew up in Massachusetts, where the Catholic-Protestant tension is the thickest you’ll find outside of Ireland. My parents’ view was that we were all Christians, but it doesn’t matter. It’s in the water. And more importantly, on the playgrounds. So I grew up knowing that I was Protestant Not Catholic, and that meant that We Do Not Pray To Saints.

But things have changed, and I am learning to learn from other faith traditions instead of competing with them. So a few times this summer, I found myself praying to, or maybe with, or at least about, Joseph.

Joseph is not technically the patron saint of stepparents. Technically, those are Saints Adelaide, Leopold the Good, and Thomas More. But I’m Protestant, and this saints thing is new to me, and Joseph is familiar. So Joseph it is.

There are some crucial differences between being a garden-variety stepmother and being the “earthly father” of Jesus Christ. Also, I realize that as a non-custodial stepparent, my role is much more limited than that of Joseph or any other parent who lives with their kid. But this summer I spent a month stepmomming fulltime, and not to say that my stepson is Jesus or anything (although he is amazing), but I feel an affinity with Joseph. We’ve had some similar experiences. We deal with some of the same issues.

Joseph knows what it’s like to field the curious stares, awkward questions, and rude comments that come with being a 26-year-old stepmom. People assume I’m my stepson’s nanny, or his aunt, or his older sister. They ask probing questions about my spouse. They warmly assert their approval: “This is my stepson.” “Oh! Okay!!!!!” Joseph gets it. He probably caught a fair bit side-eye around Nazareth.

Joseph understands that becoming a step-parent happens in stages – first, you start dating someone, and he tells you that he has a child; or you’re engaged to someone, but she gets pregnant so you figure you’ll break it off, but an angel appears to you in a dream and tells you not to. (Either way, really.) It gets serious when you’re on the altar, making vows with your spouse to the sweetest little boy in his miniature tuxedo; or, perhaps, when you are searching around the stable for some swaddling cloths and a place to lay a newborn. But it doesn’t feel really real for real until you’re fleeing to Egypt to escape a bloodthirsty, power-hungry king. Which, now that I think of it, makes the requests for peanut butter toast at six in the morning and the fortieth viewing of How to Train Your Dragon seem like somewhat less of a big deal.

One day I brought my stepson with me to the church’s sandwich ministry. He wasn’t sure he wanted to come – he had never done anything like that before. He had a lot of questions about homelessness and poor people. We talked about Jesus, and what he had to say about feeding people. My stepson said he would try. He was shy and reserved as we both got to work. But eventually I noticed that he was introducing himself around, handing out bag lunches, pouring cups of water, and explaining, “I’m here with my stepmom.” When I heard those words, my heart filled with pride and gratitude, and my eyes welled with tears, and Joseph smiled with me.

Dear God, I’m not sure exactly how this saint thing works, but please tell Joseph thank you. Amen.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Solomon's Temple, Terabithia, and the WTC

A Sermon on Haggai

Haggai is a tiny little book near the back of the Old Testament that is read in church only once every three years in our lectionary cycle – and that’s if you don’t choose the alternate reading from Job. If you’ve never heard of Haggai, frankly I’m not surprised. It is the record of the prophecies of Haggai, who spoke to the Israelites twenty years after they have returned from exile, encouraging them to rebuild the temple, which had been destroyed when Jerusalem was sacked. But today, as we move forward after Sunday’s remembrance of September 11, 2001, I think Haggai might have something to say to us. Haggai writes:

Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts. (Haggai 2:3-9)

There is something breathtaking in opening the Bible and finding that they, no less than we, know the anguish of living with a hole in the ground where a building used to be. Ancient Israel and contemporary America are two very, very different contexts. But as we struggle to find our way forward after Sunday's remembrance of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, maybe this text has something to say to us.

From our point of view, the Jerusalem temple might seem like a strange and archaic institution. My friends in rabbinical school tell me that it sometimes seems that way to contemporary Jews as well. But the temple was at the very heart of the formation of Judaism. This was where Israel’s most sacred objects were kept; it was the place where God was literally believed to live; it symbolized God’s deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt, God’s covenant with the Israelite people. In 586 BCE, the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, burned the temple to the ground, and took some of the Israelites into exile for over forty years. Eventually they returned, but even then, things were not easy: they cleared away the charred debris of the old temple, placed the altar, and laid the foundation for the new temple. But there were controversies over who would be in charge of the building, and tensions between the Israelites and the Persian empire. The project stalled. Twenty years later, Haggai stepped in.

In the early part of the book, Haggai rebukes the people for building fine houses for themselves while the temple still lies in ruins. But soon, he becomes warmer toward the people, acknowledging their despair, discouragement, and uncertainty. “Who is left among you,” he asks, “who saw this house in its former glory?” Probably very few people are left who knew the temple before its destruction sixty-six years before. This is a generation that knows the lack of the temple, that knows what its destruction meant for their community, but which has never directly experienced the temple itself – like the children who have been raised in the midst of the “War on Terror,” who never knew a time before color-coded security alerts and “random” TSA screenings and news of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then Haggai goes on to ask, “How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” I can imagine how meager the temple would look to this community. After decades in exile, remembering the glory days before the Babylonians, after a jubilant return full of hopes and dreams and plans, after losing energy and letting the temple mount lie empty, the site of the temple is a reminder not only of national tragedy, but now also of failure.

My spouse and I live pretty close to the site of the World Trade Center, and I walk past the construction there pretty frequently. Actually, though, I’ve always avoided it whenever I could. It’s crowded, and noisy, and you never know which sidewalks are going to be closed. And I’ve always found it depressing – both because of what happened there ten years ago, and because ten years later, it was still a construction site. Even now, with the new tower going up and the memorial open, I’ve continued to avoid it. I want to imagine that it’s not so bad anymore, and I’m afraid to find out I’m wrong. That might be how the Israelites might have felt about the site of the temple.

This is a people mired in frustration and despair, guilt and exhaustion, staring helplessly at this place which has become a symbol of failure and grief. This is a people trapped by the weight of unrealized dreams. Their vision of the good old days has become so heavy that they don’t know how to move forward. Their nostalgia is blurring their vision. They cannot see possibilities for the future because their focus is firmly in the past. They are stuck. Sometimes we too get stuck as people, as families, as a nation.

We get stuck when we move to a new apartment and don’t know where to even begin turning the pile of boxes into a place of our own. We get stuck when we face the prospect of a job search, and we can’t dream dreams because we are so afraid that we will never find anything. We get stuck when we confront the reality that mainline Christianity as we know it is dying, and we don’t know what the church will look like twenty or fifty or a hundred years from now. We get stuck when we look at a political system that is so broken that we don’t even know where change would start.

“Take courage, all you people of the land,” God says through Haggai, “work, for I am with you, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.” Haggai invokes the Exodus, the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, not because the past was better, but to remind them that this is a community which has experienced change, which has been through hardship, and that God has been present with them through it all. God was with them before the temple was built, and God was with them when the temple was standing, and God is with them now. They do not need to rebuild God’s house so that God can abide among them. Haggai reminds them that God’s spirit is with them already, present with them, moving and consoling and inspiring them. Being assured that God is present with them, that God’s spirit is abiding among them in the here and now, frees the people to look toward the future. The temple mount can be a place for visions and plans again, not just a symbol of loss and tragedy.

On Sunday, I watched the coverage of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. As I wept with people who remembered their loved ones – investment bankers and custodial workers, firefighters and police officers, men and women, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others – lost in that tragedy, I wondered what it would look like for us to move forward? What would it mean for us to have real healing? What dreams would we dream? What would we build?

The film A Bridge to Terabithia tells the story of a ten-year-old boy named Jess with a gift for art. His family doesn’t encourage his talent, but he makes friends with a new neighbor, Leslie, who not only encourages his artwork, but helps him to develop his imagination. They like to swing on a rope across a creek and play on the other side, in the imaginary land of Terabithia. Through their friendship, Jess is transformed; he gains self-confidence, grows as an artist, starts to envision new possibilities for himself. But one day, while Jess is at an art museum, Leslie tries to go play in Terabithia, falls into the creek, and dies. For some time, Jess is withdrawn. He doesn’t want to play, or do artwork, or talk to his family or his friends or his teachers. He spends all his time on the other side of the creek, guilt-sick, grief-stricken, and inconsolable. His family tries to reach out to him to no avail. Finally, when his sister nearly dies trying to cross the creek herself to reach out again, he realizes that he needs to find a different way to deal with his grief. He starts to collect materials – wood, rope, nails. He works hard, although we don’t know quite what he is up to. In the final scene, we see what he has done: in memory of Leslie, he has constructed a bridge across the creek, a bridge to Terabithia.

Abiding God, present with us in grief and in healing, make your presence known to us today. Give us courage to dream dreams and build bridges. Amen.